Bicycle lanes in Mexico City, where bus transit systems and cycling help reduce reliance on automobiles that emit greenhouse gases. Photo by: Colin Hughes / CC BY-NC-ND

It is often said that states are laboratories for policy innovation and experimentation. That may be true with regard to many government policies, but on climate change policy, municipalities around the world have been the leaders and innovators.

The leading role of municipalities on climate change may well be a critical matter right now because the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is underway in Paris. What is expected out of the meeting is an agreement on how the countries that are parties to the agreement will limit their greenhouse gas emissions and support adaptation.

There are a lot of lessons that can be learned from municipalities. It is worthwhile to briefly review the contribution cities have already had on climate change.

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The emphasis on municipal action on climate change began as early as two years before the Rio Summit on sustainable development, with a 1990 meeting of the World Congress of Local Governments for a Sustainable Future. This led to the formation of the Cities for Climate Protection in 1993. Shortly after CCP began its work, individual municipalities initiated efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for climate change impacts.

These efforts preceded and set the tone for state and provincial efforts, as well as national and ultimately international action on climate change.

Here is a look at four major cities and how they have become leading innovators on climate change:


In the early 1990s, Portland, Oregon, faced air- and water-quality problems, as well as population growth and increasing automobile traffic. Rather than continue to “grow as usual” and increasing its greenhouse gas emissions, the city committed itself to becoming one of the most sustainable cities in America.

Among Portland’s notable efforts are building a light rail system with money that would otherwise have gone to freeway expansion; installing 3,000 solar systems; and planting 3 million trees and shrubs. This has resulted in a 14 percent reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions since 1990, despite the city’s 30 percent population growth over the same period. The city is on track to achieve its goal of 80 percent greenhouse gas reductions by 2050. In addition, Portland has used green infrastructure to reduce flood risks that will likely be exacerbated by climate change.


The city of Durban, South Africa, joined the CCP in 2000 with funding from the United States Agency for International Development. Durban developed a greenhouse gas inventory in 2003 and, two years later, a project to support energy efficiency for buildings. City leaders developed an adaptation strategy in 2006; within a year, they initiated adaptation planning for water resources, human health, and disaster risk management. Since that early effort, the city has updated the adaptation strategy several times. Durban’s leadership on adaptation was highlighted with the promulgation of the Durban Action Plan in 2011 during the United Nations negotiations on climate change.

New York

New York City has been a national and global leader on climate change. Its 2007 PlaNYC, developed under the leadership of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, committed the city to greenhouse gas emissions reductions of 30 percent by 2030. When the mayor left office at the end of 2013, the city had already reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 19 percent from 2005. In addition, the New York City Panel on Climate Change combined science and policymaking to spur resilience initiatives to protect public health, the city’s coastlines, water resources, ecosystems, and infrastructure from climate-related hazards such as coastal storm surge, flooding and heat waves. One of the notable aspects of New York’s efforts on climate change has been its clear delineation of goals and metrics, all captured in regular report cards on PlaNYC’s progress.

Mexico City

A city of 21 million inhabitants, the Mexican capital has challenges associated with any large population — transportation, air quality and water supply. The city also grapples with high rates of poverty. Despite these challenges, the city has made substantial progress on climate change mitigation and adaptation. During its first climate change action program, Mexico City reduced its emissions by 6 million tons — a decrease of 4.5 percent below baseline estimates. The city is now in the midst of its second climate change action program and has pledged to reduce GHG emissions by 10 million tons (carbon equivalent) by 2020.

Mexico city is also taking steps that have co-benefits to addressing mitigation and adaptation. For example, promoting bus transit systems and cycling reduces reliance on automobiles, which emit greenhouse gases and harms air quality; and also reduces reliance on subways, which emit GHGs and are vulnerable to flooding.

The UNFCCC COP is likely to codify what is essentially a voluntary approach to greenhouse gas emissions reduction and to secure financing for adaptation in developing countries. For this to succeed, there needs to be more leadership and innovation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve resilience to climate change.

As has been seen, cities have been out front of other levels of government on taking action. Thus, the COP should continue to recognize and encourage the innovative and leading role that cities will play on climate change. This may be particularly important should the COP agree to regular review of progress by countries, and identification of additional commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The innovations developed by leading cities can be factored into such commitments.

Indeed, a voluntary structure is one in which cities can continue to serve as laboratories and innovators leading the world toward a path of climate stability and resilience.

Planet Worth is a global conversation in partnership with Abt Associates, Chemonics, HELVETAS, Tetra Tech, the U.N. Development Program and Zurich, exploring leading solutions in the fight against climate change, while highlighting the champions of climate adaptation amid emerging global challenges. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #PlanetWorth.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Joel Smith

    Joel B. Smith is principal at Abt Associates. He has been analyzing climate change impacts and adaptation issues for more than 25 years. Prior to coming to Abt, Smith was a coordinating lead author or lead author on the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Assessment Reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a member of the U.S. National Climate Change Assessment Federal Advisory Committee and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences “Panel on Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change.”